Solidarity and SA Chemical Workers Union: briefings

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Employment and Labour

15 February 2005
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Meeting Summary

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Meeting report

15 February 2005

Chairperson: Ms O Kasienyane (ANC)

Documents handed out:
Solidarity Occupational Health and Safety Department PowerPoint Presentation
SA Chemical Worker’s Union briefing

The Committee met to hear presentations from the Solidarity Health and Safety Department and the SA Chemical Worker’s Union on the recent spate of tragic accidents within the chemical industry. Key positions held by the unions were expounded, including reasons for the increased accident rate, proposed solutions, current relations with management and the value of enhanced training programmes. Numerous questions were asked including the status of safety representatives, proposed amendments desired by unions, the role of workplace forums and the current condition of plant infrastructure. The Committee was adamant that a co-operative and consultative approach between organised labour and management was required to ensure the highest possible standards of safety in the chemicals industry.

The Chairperson stated that the meeting was a follow-up to a previous meeting in 2004 and was intended to discuss the challenges faced by Sasol and the trade unions involved. The Members sought further detail on the accidents recently experienced and where responsibility lay. Unions were tasked with ensuring the safety of workers by communicating with management on a continuous basis. Solutions should be reached by means of a mutual approach incorporating management, workers, the government and organised labour. The recent appointment of an international consultancy to investigate the spate of accidents was a positive development. The Committee would contribute in a pro-active manner to addressing shortcomings. Members would be assisted by the briefings by organised labour and a meeting would be held shortly with company management and the Department of Labour.

Solidarity briefing
Mr C Pienaar (Head of Training: Occupational Health and Safety) indicated that the briefing would provide the union’s perspective on the recent spate of accidents. Conflict between the union and Sasol management had been resolved in the interests of improved safety standards. The union would assist management in improving overall safety. An overview of recent accidents was provided highlighting the Sasol explosion on 1 September 2004 where ten fatalities occurred. A change of mindset was required to halt the wave of disasters necessitating a pro-active response to the challenges.

Various reasons for the problems were emphasised including shortcomings in contractor maintenance activity where inexperienced and less-skilled individuals were undertaking sensitive and dangerous work. Long hours of work and fraudulent qualifications also contributed to heightened risk. Specialist maintenance teams were needed to reduce the risk factor. Presently, poor safety standards existed throughout the chemical industry. The union advocated improved induction training for full-and part-time employees to reduce the pressure on contractor maintenance. Management had to forge a healthy working relationship with trade unions to improve investigation of accidents. Many plans of plants were out-dated and infrastructure was deteriorating. Loss of skills through retrenchment and emigration also contributed to weakened safety.

A balance should be created between improved safety standards, maintenance and production. More safety representatives had to be appointed by management and unions. A regulatory body involving key industry role-players would facilitate progress and provide solutions. Extensive training programmes involving the relevant SETA were urgently required to foster a culture of reporting of negligence or high-risk situations. The physical condition of key infrastructure was of grave concern.

The Chairperson acknowledged the extensive research undertaken by Solidarity and the emphasis on safety and transparency. The Committee would encourage management transparency and sound relations between unions and chemical companies.

SA Chemical Worker’s Union briefing
Mr J Maqhekeni (President-SACWU) pointed out that most recent fatalities involved contract workers with no employee assistance to families. Training of workers had to be improved and sound safety rules should be formulated and implemented. Recent initiatives on the part of Sasol management had to be acknowledged such as the appointment of international consultants to analyse and construct workable solutions. Possible amendments to the Occupational Health and Safety Act would be discussed within the relevant Nedlac forum. The union was committed to improving conditions within the chemical industry and proposed more extensive inspections by the Department of Labour. Safety representatives had to receive comprehensive training and be appointed following a mutually consultative process including management and unions.

The Chairperson re-emphasised the problem regarding contract workers and demanded improved levels of training. Increased numbers of youth should be trained within the industry leading to higher levels of employment. Health and Safety representatives had to be increased and placed at strategic points throughout the industry.

Prince N Zulu (IFP) stated that no conflict should exist between management and unions as both were responsible for worker safety. Transparency remained the key to promote sound working relationships. He asked for more detail on the number of skilled personnel leaving the industry.

Mr S Rasmeni (ANC) asked whether a comparable period of accidents existed to assist understanding and provide possible solutions. Further clarity was sought on the appointment of safety representatives as management had the right to appoint individuals following adequate consultation with unions. Assistance to affected families had to be improved. Detail was requested on the role of Departmental inspectors within the industry.

Mr Pienaar responded that a sounder relationship now existed between unions and management following dispute resolution actions. The union desired a balance between the cost of production and safety with a golden thread of safety running throughout the industry. The loss of skills had to be reduced and vital knowledge retained. Thirty seven contractors had died during the past three years with 23 directly related to Sasol. Solidarity supported a triangle model of safety with the incidence of fatalities at the top. Reduced levels of injuries were irrelevant when fatalities were inflating. Designation of safety representatives by management encouraged abuse as unions could be marginalised. Representatives should be appointed on a mutual-consensus basis with improved training. Compensation to families following death was inadequate and characterised by lengthy delays.

Mr Rasmeni questioned whether the designation process regarding safety representatives was problematic as legislation allowed for sufficient consultation between stakeholders.

Mr Pienaar responded that the tendency for one-sided management-controlled appointments had to cease and a culture of collective agreements inculcated.

Mr Maqhekeni concurred that safety representatives required enhanced training to foster confidence and ability. Invariably, management decisions were conducted separately which negated attempts to strengthen working relationships. The Department of Labour had to co-operate in improving safety standards by insisting on compliance with existing legislation by chemical companies. Inactivity would encourage the marginalisation of organised labour by management. The union had played an important role in improving assistance provided to the families by the respective companies.

Mr C Lowe (DA) asked whether the two unions could provide further detail on the type of amendments sought regarding the Occupational Health and Safety Act and the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act. He asked whether the proposed amendments could be construed as industry-specific or only directed at a particular sector.

Mr G Olifant (ANC) added that recent discussions within Nedlac had indicated a move towards increasing penalties for offending employers. Management had the prerogative to appoint safety representatives following meaningful consultation with stakeholders. Full-time representatives should be introduced as existed in the mining industry. He asked whether workplace forums operated within the industry to facilitate increased levels of safety. A profile of contractors should be compiled to enhance understanding of the challenges. Specialist maintenance teams were needed to prevent a continuing escalation of accidents. A capacity problem existed within the Labour Inspectorate that required attention.

Mr M Mzondeki (ANC) acknowledged the value of highlighting positive examples of companies co-operating with unions and promoting improved safety standards. The nature of training administered to shop stewards was crucial in determining the level of safety with uniformity a pre-requisite.

Mr L Maduna (ANC) asked whether meaningful research had been conducted to determine the current condition of operational plants and whether legislation could be enacted to improve compliance with safety laws.

Ms S Rajbally (MF) asked how the monitoring of contractors and sub-contractors was carried out to facilitate enhanced safety.

Mr O Mogale (ANC) asked for evidence on the amount of abnormal hours or overtime currently experienced and whether the Labour Inspectorate investigated such incidents. He asked for further detail on labour brokers involved in the hiring of contractual workers and whether Black Economic Empowerment was a priority in this regard.

Mr G Anthony (ANC) highlighted the importance of adequate safety structures to facilitate suitable safety standards. The presence of a safety committee required an initial recognition agreement involving management and unions.

Mr Pienaar stated that a detailed account of envisaged legislative amendments would be forwarded to the Committee within a week. Safety watchers were in place to monitor the entire safety representative system but an audit was currently underway to determine the efficacy of the present arrangement. The Occupational Health and Safety Act allowed for the establishment of workplace forums which should be investigated further. Evidence on the abuse of overtime restrictions was being investigated and time sheets would be acquired from management. Relevant information would be forwarded to Members. The manner in which specialist contract maintenance teams were established was open to debate but the necessity for such teams was beyond dispute.

Solidarity enjoyed a sound working relationship with the Labour Inspectorate but Department representatives should attend more stakeholder meetings. The establishment of a National Chemical Forum would assist in widening the application of best-practice methods throughout the industry. The status of ageing plant equipment would be determined and appropriate steps taken to address shortfalls. Harsh penalties would be imposed on individuals who abused the overtime stipulations. Some labour brokers employing contract workers were erstwhile employees of Sasol who wanted to profit from acquired knowledge of operations. The role of BEE in contractual work should be answered by management. Workplace forums were the correct vehicle to address health and safety concerns.

Mr Maqhekeni stated that SACWU would provide detail on proposed amendments considered by the union in due course but reminded Members of the union’s involvement in key Nedlac negotiations. Management had been approached to furnish a profile of contractual workers currently active including the status of BEE. The chemical industry required a new culture promoting safety, productivity and transparency.

The Chairperson acknowledged the contribution made by both unions to improve health and safety within the chemical industry and reconfirmed the Committee’s commitment to support this process. A representative of Solidarity would be invited to attend the upcoming meeting with Sasol management and the Department of Labour.

The meeting was adjourned.


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